The evening started inauspiciously: Peter Gabriel, the headliner, strolled on to the Starlight Theatre stage Saturday night and briefly explained the concept of his New Blood Tour, as if someone might be unawares. Then he introduced Ane Brun, who performed two folk songs on guitar, solo, showing off a voice that would come into play later in the show.
The evening ended more than three hours later, just as quietly: Gabriel and the orchestra performing the instrumental "The Nest That Sailed the Sky."
What happened in between those two moments was special by all measurements. The New Blood Tour features Gabriel backed by a 50-plus-piece orchestra and an animated conductor performing reconstructed versions of pop and rock songs. Most of those songs were Gabriel’s. Others were titles pulled from his "Scratch My Back" album, a collection of cover songs.
The show delivered rewards on many levels. Some of the New Blood versions were more dramatic than others, such as Paul Simon’s "Boy In The Bubble." Gabriel left little alone but the lyrics, stripping the original of all its lightness, swing and bounce and turning it into a grim, slow-moving hymn.
His opener, David Bowie’s "Heroes," split the difference, veering off into its own path while sustaining a firm resemblance to the original.
He played four of those covers in the first half of his show, with mixed results. His reimagining of Arcade Fire’s "My Body is a Cage," for example, couldn’t fix the original’s inherent weakness: It’s a boring song.
He filled the rest of the first half with his own songs, two of which were among the best moments of a grand evening. As the video screen broadcast grainy black and white footage of Gabriel and his 99-year-old dad taking a country walk, he and the orchestra sang the lovely and moving "Father Son." The woman in front of me, who wiped away tears several times, wasn’t the only one who got choked up.
The second half of the show featured all Gabriel songs, and if there’s anything to complain about it would be the set list — not so much what was played but what wasn’t ("Shock the Monkey," "Games Without Frontiers," "Here Comes the Flood"). But in the wider context of this show, the set list was hardly the point.
Instead, as he and the orchestra played on, the show became about the music and the performances, not necessarily the songs. Several times he stepped back so the stage full of musicians could unleash some orchestral fury. The crowd of about 5,000 responded in kind: with standing ovations and the kind of enthusiastic roars you hear at a Springsteen show.
For anyone who attends a lot of shows (especially those who make a living at it), this was one of those that separated itself from all others. More than a show, it became an occasion, an event, an experience whose sum consequence was greater than its many, impressive parts, all of whom contributed impressively:
Gabriel; his conductor, Ben Foster; his arranger, John Metcalfe; the entire orchestra, half of whom were local musicians; Brun and Melanie Gabriel; and anyone involved with the video and sound, both of which were impeccable.
After three hours of energy and creativity and artistic panache, the closer — an ambient instrumental — seemed anti-climactic. Then again, on a night when little was by-the-book or ordinary, you could say it was the perfect denouement to the end of something grand, stirring and memorable.
© Kansas City Star, by Timothy Finn